I was talking to my mom on the phone in the wake of this year’s parade. I don’t know how long it’s been since she attended, but I’d guess a couple decades. The West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn is a young person’s affair: You dress up and dance until your legs are jelly. I only have vague memories of that time.
“Mommy, I need to stop and get out. I’m gonna throw up.”
“We soon reach,” she urged. “Just hold on nuh man. If you feel sick, open a window. You will be fine.”
“I can’t open it,” I said, as I struggled with stuck revolving knob. The livery cabs had manual knobs that took eternities to turn.
Cracked blue vinyl seats condensed slimy hugs around me in those summer car rides. The pine freshener dangling from the rearview mirror swung to my dizziness. I was always nauseated and burning in cars. September mornings on Eastern Parkway reminded me too much of that. The parade could be fun but I hated the onset of school, the clanging echoes and thunderous speakers. Music was private, and my family had taught me to be quiet and good. That was Jamaican to me: proper, proud, and pious.
“Look how dem pose off in a the likkle skirt deh.”
My mother was commenting on the other Jamaicans. They were her age but seemed younger with their blazed orange and blonde perms. Their waves ironed flat and gold teeth gleaming, they were objects of chastisement and disdain. They looked like the dancers and love interests in Buju Banton videos. The neon spandex they wore was well ahead of its time.
From mother’s tone I gathered: We weren’t better but we spoke English the way the Queen intended. (That Queen has since died, along with my beliefs about what to do with that colonial tongue.) One of my dangerous aunties dressed colorfully, and I loved her for it. The Parkway gave her the space to show out where she couldn’t within our apartment walls.
“Show them how you do the dance, Andrew. Gwan and move yuh waist.”
My aunties permitted where they could. Between working odd hours nursing and feeding White families, they would strut and spit slang. However adjusted they were, Labor Day was fit for a “bumboclaaaaat!” when their tunes came on. I found it amusing and embarrassing when they’d lower their hips and tell me to move mine. Why were they so obsessed with music today and now? All they ever told me to do was walk upright, be quiet, go to school.
One day a year, it was an absolute fête. My people made the news. Still, I struggled to hold on to my mother’s hand as she yanked me through throngs of flag-bearers. I smelled spicy burnt cinnamon floating out of carved oil drums and saw rum-infused screams beckon old friends. None of the pleasure hit me, though, because a claustrophobic 8-year-old was born in that parade. That’s not to mention the grim-looking police, back when they still had batons, lording over us.
The West Indian Day Parade wasn’t mine to like as a boy; it was theirs. I’m glad they gave me something to strive for.
A few days ago, Sheryl Lee Ralph won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress. That recognition has been far too rare, so she, at last, got a chance to luxuriate in well-deserved praise. But she was always present in my household because when she appeared on the TV screen my mother would say, ‘She is a Jamaican, you know.'”
I knew. Ralph has boosted the pride of Jamaicans everywhere, but especially artists like me. Working artists. Artists who had to prove to their parents that a path to fulfillment could exist in dedication to a craft. In a recent New Yorker interview with Vinson Cunningham, Ralph expanded on that idea.
“I’m an immigrant’s child and my Jamaican mother was just appalled that I was going to be a singer, a dancer, and actress after they worked their good hard-earned money to send me to college to make history at Rutgers University, and you’re going to be an actress," she said. "It was such a journey to get her in the seat.”
I felt that sting. My mother didn’t forbid me from becoming an artist, a writer. But she didn’t make much room for it either. She simply didn’t know what it meant for her son to do it.
Immigrant parents like Ralph’s mother and mine know the American dream is nothing but a gauntlet to break down the best of us. A scheme to sell us hope while grinding us to dust to make a buck.
What would success look like? How would he manage with money so scarce in artistic work?
Immigrant parents like Ralph’s mother and mine know the American dream is nothing but a gauntlet to break down the best of us. A scheme to sell us hope while grinding us to dust to make a buck. Like the parade, she knew there could only be so much color in this world. The rest of the time, we had to work until our knuckles bled, or until White gatekeepers felt safe. There was no other way to prosperity. That and a little hope, and dumb luck, and the ugly propensity to dream. What parent wouldn’t fear the failure of that rare recipe?
When I sat down with mom again this week, she said: “You see? That’s what we were talking about with you. The consistency.” I mentioned how long Ralph had been working and that her support system mattered as much as her drive. That concept seemed to land with my mother, who, as she nears retirement, is less fixed about the unfailing virtues of folks at the top. I love her for that. I also see her observe artists who work without thanks or rewards and note some of that is in me.
I watched my mother work, don a trench coat in the fall, and brave New York commutes. I watched her take up and then quit cigarettes, fight off the devil, and weep. From her I’ve learned I’m not in a glory chase. I take pride in what I do, down to the diction and the rhythm of sentences. But I also work, which she respects and loves (to the extent that she knows it fulfills me).
Sheryl Lee Ralph is running around town, beaming with her Emmy, and dropping Jamaican patois into her long-held tributes to her mother. I only wish her mother were here to see it.